Why are pornstars more notable than scientists on Wikipedia?

Encouraging expert participation in Wikimedia projects is a key aspect of the Wikimedian in Residence on Open Science project, and so is pointing out what discourages experts from contributing.

Below is a copy of a blog post by Antony Williams (Wikipedia article) in which he describes some particularly egregious cases of imbalances in Wikipedia policies when it comes to involving scientific experts like him. Antony heads ChemSpider (Wikipedia article), one of the largest public databases of chemical information, which is now part of the Royal Society of Chemistry (Wikipedia article). He is an active contributor to Wikipedia (recent edits), and ChemSpider systematically engages experts to curate Wikipedia content (early blog post).

In the blog post, he has not even mentioned all of his contributions that have been tagged for deletion or notability – an article about the 16-million-Euro international research project Open PHACTS (Wikipedia article) is currently up for deletion as well.

The usual way to deal with proposed deletions is to engage in deletion discussions on a perarticle level. This is time-consuming in a way that experts cannot justifiably be expected to engage in, so we will need a more structured approach. Suggestions on how to go about that are most welcome.

I’m a BIG Wikipedia fan. It is one of my favorite sites, our 9 year old twins have spent many hours on the site with me, and I have personally spent a lot of time, including Christmas, curating chemistry on Wikipedia. I like what Wikipedia has achieved, have willingly contributed articles, but also enjoy a good laugh at Wikipedia’s expense when appropriate. In the past 24 hours I’ve giggled at the latest XKCD cartoon as well as this blog post about Jimmy Wales.

Despite my affection for Wikipedia this week I am annoyed about what’s going on for me on Wikipedia. I’ve read The Wikipedia Revolution and understand the editorial activities and I’ve had many discussions about how authors of Wikipedia articles have been “beaten up” in a friendly way. I’ve been warned about Conflict of Interest policies and yet, because I think it’s important, have tried to navigate the complexities of contributing articles. At present however my contributions on Wikipedia regarding scientists and projects I know about have all been flagged, either for deletion or for “notability”.

I’ve  written the bulk of these articles: Gerhard EckerSean Ekins and Gary Martin. Some of the flags on the articles include “It may have been edited by a contributor who has a close connection with its subject.Tagged since November 2011.”

Gary Martin and Sean Ekins are personal friends so YES, I have close connections with the subject. And I believe I can objectively write a good article about them. Just like I wrote about the village I grew up in…Afonwen. I only spent 12 years of my life there….so have a close connection with that too. I have known Gerhard Ecker for about three years, and know about his work from reading his articles and hearing him speak, and feel its valid to contribute an article as I JUDGE he’s a notable scientist. Gary Martin has almost 300 publications, and an h-index of 27. In the domain of NMR anyone who is doing small molecule structure elucidation is almost certainly using technology he has contributed too. He is notable. Sean Ekins is also notable, in my opinion. And surely Wikipedia is about collective opinions.

I have tried to follow notability guidelines for academics but have clearly failed so encourage anyone reading this post to help clean up the articles. If any of you out there happen to know Gerhard, Gary or Sean DON’T contribute though…you might get flagged as being a contributor who has a close connection. It’s much better to write about people you don’t know. Clearly I understand the possible bias …

If I look at the number of chemists on Wikipedia I find the following list of about 480 chemists. That article is a list of world-famous chemists. There is also a smaller list of Russian Chemists. The end of the list looks like this:

See also

These are likely all NOTABLE chemists as I couldn’t find a single article in the list with a challenge on it…but I confess to not looking at each one one at a time. But that’s what we have for chemists….a list of world-famous chemists, biochemists and Russian chemists.

Many of us have heard about how “open” Wikipedia is including many of the exchanges regardingpornography on Wikipedia. In many cases I have to simply caution “welcome to the internet”. We all know its out there…how could we not. There is material on Wikipedia that is shocking, but at the same time educational. But where I take issue, just for comparison purposes, is that top-notch scientists, in my opinion (and I judge that of many others) can be flagged as not notable, yet pages like those listed below for pornstars can exist without question, without flagging but,  I have to assume, are both encyclopedic and notable.

Similar to the list of chemists a search on pornstars gives a full article here but then these incredibly long lists!

The last one is quite a list! I guess its appropriate to list pornstars by decade but scientists tend to perform better over the longer term and can have 40-50 year careers whereas I don’t even want to imagine that for the other career! I struggle to see why the list of references for Ron Jeremy is any more notable/appropriate than the list of references for Gary Martin.

What’s ridiculous is that there is even an article about pornstar pets. What??? This has more of a place on Wikipedia than some of our worlds most published scientists? Is there something wrong with this picture?

While I may not fully understand what is deemed to be appropriate in terms of notability for a scientist, and I do understand the judgment that I might be too close to the scientists to be objective (but I challenge that!) I definitely challenge the status that ponstars deserve more exposure, pardon the pun, than the worlds chemists.

Despite my rants I understand the challenges that will likely show up as comments on this blogpost. I understand that I will be pointed to WP:COI and WP:Notability. I do not get to set the rules, I need to follow them as I am a small part of a very important community of crowdsourced improvement. But, overall, I remain surprised at how there appears to be so much diligence looking at the articles of scientists rather than those of pornstars. I think scientists are generally involved in very notable activities that generally distinguish them from the bulk of the population. I think pornstars are involved in activities that are not particularly notable as the bulk of the population will do them at some point in their life….well, not ALL activities that pornstars do I’m sure…..

I believe we need a change in policy. I believe that scientists deserve more notability than pornstars and that diligence, while appropriate, should be used in a more tempered manner.

There is an alternative solution…

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6 Responses to Why are pornstars more notable than scientists on Wikipedia?

  1. Pingback: Why are pornstars more notable than scientists on Wikipedia? | Wikimedian in Residence | Science News | Scoop.it

  2. P. Birken says:

    I strongly object to the title. The Blogpost you so uncritically repeat starts with the assumption made in the title, only to deliver nothing on it, except personal bias on that porn stars apparently are not as “good” as scientists and therefore should be less notable. In fact, the only thing I take from the posting is that there is an apparent conflict of interest and that the author is therefore more emotionally involved, resulting in a lot of anger about a deletion request.

    Now, deletion requests have the inherent problem that they come after publication, resulting in “open peer review”. Apparently a lot of people can’t take this sort of valid criticism. I say: That is a problem of Wikipedia. This, however, has nothing to do with scientists or porn stars.

    There is the fact that even famous scientists have little public reputation and that there are often little to no neutral sources on these. That can be lamented (and both of us, as well as Antony Williams are working on changing that), but things are as they are and this should not be a reason to make exceptions for scientists in Wikipedias quality control. Also, I seriously doubt that doing so will result in more scientists contributing to Wikipedia.

  3. @P Birken: I think its a question of what you would view as public information. If you want me to point at public information on the reputation of eg Gary Martin then I can point at those 300 papers (alright maybe not as public as they should be but that’s a separate issue, they are formally published) and more importantly the tens of thousands of papers that cite them.

    But the core issue here isn’t the one of notability guidelines. That’s really just a question of discussing what is appropriate for academics and iterating towards a consensus. Maybe there should be something around numbers of papers, or h-factors, or paper ranks but that’s a discussion that can be had.

    The central issue here is the one of page-by-page deletion processes. This is what is really driving academic contributors away because it is difficult to have real confidence about the process if you are coming in from the outside. The pre- or post- publication peer review issue is a red herring, its about being confident that the amount of work I put into an article will be useful, bearing in mind there is little or no professional reward for putting that work in. A fear of deletion, and more particularly of being unsure, pushes me in the negative direction. One solution is to make contributions to WP so prestigious for researchers that they will take the chance, in the same way we do for papers, but this will take a while. Part of the answer is lowering that level of fear. Few of us are ever going to be huge contributors, WP is not for original research after all, so how do we construct entry points that make it a bit easier to make useful contributions? Do we just accept that there will be a small number of heavy academic contributors (like Antony) and they will act as guides? Or are there ways of making it easier for the semi-regular and occasional research contributor? Or are they any different to any other similar contributor?

    Part of the solution is clearer notability guidelines. If it were clear that anyone with an h-factor over 30 was ok, or who had a prize from a list (but then who gets to set the list) for example. Having published a book is pretty meaningless as, obviously, is “being published”. Other researchers will of course also be notable without meeting those measures but they would have to be argued on a case by case basis. A way of doing a quick dipstick poll would be valuable but I’m not sure how this could work, putting up a stub article doesn’t seem like a good way to do it.

    Another solution and one I don’t think is a good one is that somehow there is a community that has defined responsibility for an area. The problems with this are both philosophical – that it isn’t really consistent with the way Wikipedia is set up – and practical – there already is a strong chemistry community and if anyone is part of that then Antony is, and he’s the one raising the issue. The whole point here is that this is an issue that cuts across communities, chemistry, and biography within WP that will naturally have diverse views.

    Finally just to say that this kind of tension is exactly the kind of editorial challenge that needs to be constantly navigated to make a great resource. The questions and edge issues never go away, so the discussion (and disagreement) will always, and should, continue.



  4. Notability vs. Noteworthiness, Anonymity vs. Answerability

    Just a small sample of the patently obvious and persistent fallacies in the notion that anonymous global cloud-writing can produce reliable information on anything that’s more than skin-deep (I could go on and on and on):

    (1) A neutral point of view on what is true?

    (2) Expertise is no excuse?

    (3) Expertise is elitism?

    (4) Expertise is bias?

    (5) Write on what you don’t know?

    (6) The longer your track-record of being a dilettante busybody, the more decision power you merit?

    (7) Zipf’s Law trumps the Matthew Effect?

    (8) Notability, not noteworthiness, rules?

    (9) Anonymous gallup polls, not personal answerability, keep people honest and on their toes?

    (10) Crowd-sourcing protects against regression on the mean?

    (11) Pemphigus is on a par with porn?

    The surprise is not when Wikipedia gets things wrong, but when it gets them right.

    (And the only virtue of notability is that it reduces the motivation of most wikipedia busybodies to bother with esoteric scientific and scholarly topics. Trouble is that it just takes one officious dilettante with a long wack-record to cast a contagious shadow of doubt over stuff he doesn’t know, understand or care about.)

    My guess is that the only reason any qualified experts even bother to have a go at writing in Wikipedia is Wikipedia’s PageRank notability, which influences students and public opinion as their first (and often only) port of call.

    The only hope is that Open Access to the primary scientific and scholarly literature will remedy that, leaving Wikipedia to rule where it really is the expert: Trivial Pursuit.

    Stevan Harnad

  5. Nate Awrich says:

    (This was linked in a mailing list about the Wikipedia gender gap, reproducing here my response on-list)

    I’m not sure this is a gender issue so much as an inherent weakness in notability as a standard for inclusion. Notability, by its nature, reflects how well known something or someone is in society. In this case, pop culture provides limited or no coverage for many important current scientists and comparably comprehensive coverage for pornstars. So, “notability” is an imperfect hack as a standard – what we need is something better, if that’s even possible.

    On the other hand, there have been better statements of this problem than that expressed by Williams. He seems to both disagree with and misunderstand the notability standard and its purpose (its aimed at limiting the quantity of unverified / unverifiable content, and can’t be met through the personal judgment of an editor). His own article, which seems to have been principally written and edited by himself and/or a close friend, is a good example of the problem: almost no secondary, independent coverage. There are 45 references, but almost all are to published primary research or websites controlled by the subject. If the standard for inclusion were perhaps “importance” rather than notability, maybe his and similar articles would find a more welcoming home; but they would still be poorly referenced and impossible to independently verify.

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